Dollars, Cents, and Superpowers
by Jeff Bowles
There was a time comic book adaptations were a non-starter for the majority of moviegoers. For every generally well-liked superhero movie, like 1978’s Superman: The Movie or 1989’s Batman, there were at least a dozen examples of comic films gone wrong. For one, the Marvel Universe was bargain-basement, low-rent stuff. Old timers will tell you of an era in which Stan Lee’s greatest creations were relegated to B-movie direct-to-video time wasters, most of which were shot and funded outside the Hollywood system. Like, waaaaay outside the Hollywood system.
And DC, the former granddaddy of the genre? They tanked at least two very lucrative franchises because they forgot about pleasing fans and got cynical about their own intellectual property. Nobody, for instance, then or now, was willing to take 1997’s Batman and Robin seriously. For God’s sake, the batsuit had nipples. Holy unnecessary anatomy, Batman! You’ll poke someone’s eye out!
The 21st century, however, has seen quite the reversal in fortune for comic book adaptations. Boy, has it ever. In the year 2020, the biggest, most financially successful films in motion picture history feature superheroes, most of which are Marvel characters, because the notion of a working cinematic universe turned out to be an absolutely genius stroke. So how did this happen? What turned the silliest of nerd pastimes into a multi-billion dollar entertainment powerhouse?
In a few months, Writing to Be Read will be running some special articles in honor of national comic book month. May, by the way, is usually the time Marvel unleashes its biggest contender for the year. 2019’s Avengers: Endgame was a blockbuster of epic proportions, and over at DC, they’re cooking up a Wonder Woman sequel, a possible sequel to the Oscar nominated Joker, yet another Batman reboot, and Birds of Prey just hit theaters last week (and immediately flopped; sorry, DC).
Two things account for the dynamic transformation comic movies have undergone in the past twenty years: the aging-up of the comic-loving, video-game-playing, anime-watching nerd population, and the success of a movie called Blade.
For those who’ve never seen it (and at this point, it’s a little bit obscure), Blade is a 1998 Marvel action-horror flick starring everyone’s favorite vampire-slaying daywalker. Wesley Snipes took the lead role and made him exceptionally cool. And since he was still a bankable star, the film overperformed. The success of Blade emboldened Marvel to take the plunge and adapt one of their most popular properties, The Uncanny X-Men. Featuring all the fan-faves like Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Gene Grey, and Professor X, 2000’s X-Men was not exactly faithful to the source material, but it was thrilling to finally watch a Marvel movie that didn’t suck. Again, the idea of an entire working cinematic universe was just a glint in the eye of current Marvel Studios chief, Kevin Feige. The success of X-Men paved the way for the Spider-Man series, halfway decent adaptations of Hulk, Daredevil, Punisher, and The Fantastic Four, and at last, the granddaddy of all franchise starters, Iron Man.
In truth, however, the modern comic movie owes everything to Superman and its star, Christopher Reeve. His first turn in the famous blue tights hasn’t aged exceptionally well, but it still stands out as one of finest examples of a big-screen superhero adaptation done right. Gone are the childish theatrics and abysmally small budget, the mindless plot, and for the most part, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge counter culture irreverence of something like the 1960s Batman television series. Superman: The Movie took its source material seriously. Richard Donner, the film’s director, insisted on a high level of verisimilitude, which isn’t something most Hollywood filmmakers would’ve gone for. Word has it the original screenwriter—none other than Mario Puzzo of Godfather fame—loaded his script with so many tongue-in-cheek gags the film may as well have been a super-farce. For an entire generation of fans, Christopher Reeve embodied the Man of Steel, fighting for truth and justice, making everyone believe a man could fly.
And of course, historically the franchise bombed out after four entries because, you know, DC. Same thing happened to the Batman franchise in the nineties. The folks at Warner Brothers were so shocked and sickened by Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, they snatched the option to make a third bat-sequel from his grubby, weird, Edward-scissor-like hands and passed it off to the marketing machine. Again, four movies was all that first Batman series got, but by then, the genie was out of the bottle, and it wouldn’t be long until Marvel ruled the roost. Marvel, by the way, had been in bankruptcy right until the time X-Men released in theaters. Quite a Cinderella story for the House of Ideas, one nobody could have predicted two decades ago.
In 2008, Marvel and Paramount Pictures released Iron Man, and it was off to the races. Starring the always impeccable Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man injected new life into the genre, and in so doing, completely rewrote the rules of Hollywood. Over ten years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is twenty-three movies strong and still growing. Two MCU movies are scheduled to hit theaters in 2020, Black Widow and The Eternals. The thing about Marvel is they’re willing to take risks, knowing that if they do their characters justice, fans will show up. And we do. In droves.
The MCU is truly a mighty thing, containing team-ups like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, more experimental and hipper entries like Thor: Ragnarok (and doubtless) the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, politically relevant films like Black Panther, and everything in between. Yeah, they’re still just silly comic book movies, but the entire world is in love with them, and their impact on our culture cannot be overstated. Just imagine all those kids growing up with Captain America posters on their walls. That’s a lot of money in the making, and Marvel’s parent company, Disney, knows it.
The future of this genre is wide-open, and its not hard to imagine a time Marvel and DC have become two of the most powerful and ubiquitous entertainment companies in the world. Their most popular characters are already known everywhere, and they have been for decades. Really, this is just the cherry on top for a literary form invented for children in the first half of the 20th century. Superman wasn’t just the first superhero, he was the first super media product. The chiseled face that launched a thousand ships. And that doesn’t even begin to account for all the successful and wonderful comic book movie adaptations that don’t include a single cape or superpower. Greats of the sub-sub genre include Ghost World, American Splendor, 300, Road to Perdition, and Sin City. Check any of those out for a palate cleanser. You won’t be disappointed.
It’s funny, but the comic book industry itself has only shrunk in recent years. The good news for comic readers is the movies aren’t likely to completely replace good old paper and ink any time soon. After all, where would all those mega powerful, newly wealthy studio execs get their ideas? What, Hollywood come up with something fresh? Yeah. And Captain America is a communist.
Next month we’ll get back to the movie reviews, folks. For now though, go and have yourself a Marvel movie marathon, especially if you’ve never done one before. Yeah, it’s a lot of confusing action and universe-ending doom, but hey, saving the world has never been so fun. Or so lucrative. Am I right, Disney?
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Wonder Woman vs. The God Complex
by Jeff Bowles
Here in the United States, we’re just a couple of days away from the release of the first big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman, the legendary DC Comics character who’s been trading punches with bad guys since 1941. Early reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t be more excited to see it for myself.
Wonder Woman is one of my favorite comic book characters of all time. She’s strong, noble, and much like Superman or Captain America, she always seems to do the right thing. Diana Prince, otherwise known as Diana of Themyscira, is a Greek goddess who abandons the only world she’s ever known in order to fight for meek, flawed human beings. The island of Themyscira is home to the proud Amazons, a group of startlingly gifted women who’ll stab your eyes out just for looking at them the wrong way.
Actually, that’s beside the point. They are warriors, fierce battle-hardened females who’ve rarely glimpsed men and the world they’ve brought to the brink of destruction. DC Comics has done an amazing job curating and expanding upon the adventures of Diana Prince and her supporting cast of characters in the last fifteen years or so. Issue after issue of the comic has dealt with divinity, family and politics, and of course, myriad hot-button topics that have in some small way pushed the boundaries of what typical comic fans expect to see.
The upcoming film looks to do the same, though to what degree remains to be seen. As a character, Wonder Woman was created by a male psychologist who was inspired by early feminists. The guy was way ahead of his time, and over the intervening decades, Diana of Themyscira has been portrayed all kinds of ways. For instance, in the 1970s she was both a television sensation and a hard-hitting exploitation-style street vigilante, minus the tiara and bracelets. Comic book characters rarely stray far from their roots long, however, and elements such as her Lasso of Truth, her invisible jet, and her long-time on-again, off-again love interest, Steve Trevor, have come and gone.
I find it difficult to speak about the impact Wonder Woman has had on young girls and women across the globe, not just because I’m a man, but because it seems like far too large a topic. I think she’s been good for people over the years, and I hope this film delivers the kind of role model kids need nowadays. She’s important to me because growing up on comics meant a steady diet of homogeneous male heroes, and though I don’t consider myself overly political, it always gave me a pleasant feeling digging into that latest issue of Wonder Woman and reading about a damsel who was not in distress, who could handle her own, and who could in fact put the likes of Batman to shame.
Some people out there, I take it, don’t feel the same way. In the news just this morning, some theaters across the country are choosing to run a small number of female-only screenings of the film the day it comes out, distributing advertisements that make clear boys are not allowed. I think this is kind of cool, but right-wing commenters have already made some hay.
Modern America is fraught anyway. If you’re not fuming about the man in the White House, you’re screaming at the other side for their assault on your guy. Very rarely anymore can we have civil conversations about simple things like movies and comic book characters, not without the whole thing devolving into an ideological ant-scatter.
It’s important to point out Wonder Woman is in the minority as far as these things go. Nobody was creating strong female characters back in the 1940s. It just wasn’t done. I read Wonder Woman comics as a kid not because I was interested in feminism but because she was so strong, so very essential to the DC Comics mythos. Every comic fan knows the holy trinity of DC characters: Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Lose any of the three, and the books DC puts out every month just aren’t the same.
And of course, comic book movies in general are big business these days. Love them or hate them—and indeed, many people hate them—they’re a mainstay of cinemas and will be for some time to come. Though early word seems good, the naysayers will quickly poke holes in Wonder Woman’s cultural legend just because they can. Yeah, she’s a strong female character, but she still solves all her problems with her fists. And anyway, the male-driven conglomeration that is Warner Bros. will most likely try to pitch her in a way that doesn’t scare off men and young boys, the latter of which buy DC action figures and other tie-in merchandise by the bucket-full.
Such is the state of discourse in the modern world. Everything is an issue worthy of argument, even a symbol of strength and femininity who’s been around the better part of a century. I can’t say what Wonder Woman means to you. Maybe she means nothing at all, and when you go to the theater this weekend, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by her story. I hope that’s the case, because Wonder Woman has had a place in my heart for a very long time.
If, like me, you do have positive memories of her, perhaps it will be a treat to see Diana depicted in big-budget terms, regardless of whether the end product is actually any good or not. If Wonder Woman is more to you than some silly cultural icon, and if you feel like she’s never been more relevant than she is today, by all means go check the flick out for yourself.
I eschew politics when I can. I also have no children of my own. But if I had a daughter, and she was old enough to see an action film like this, I’d proudly take her down to the multiplex. Maybe afterward, I could turn the excursion into a conversation about standing up for what you believe in no matter what the cost. That’s who Wonder Woman is to me. She doesn’t know discrimination or inequality because she comes from a place where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. She stands up for the little guy, especially when that little guy is actually a girl.
I hate the need some people feel to turn her into a controversial figure. Is her story more than simple entertainment? Yes, I think it is. All the Wonder Woman comics I’ve read over the years are all the proof I need. Yes, she is a strong female who kicks butt and takes names, and yes, whether they want to admit it or not, this makes many people feel uncomfortable or even angry. But if you ask me, the politics is a cover. Wonder Woman is not and never will be just for girls. I love Wonder Woman, and I’m man enough to admit it.
There are so many ways to celebrate the world as men have made it. Is it too much to ask to celebrate the world of women? Even just for an afternoon?
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